Ilya Kovalchuk is officially back in the NHL.
After spending the past five years playing in the KHL, Kovalchuk completed his return to North America on Saturday when he agreed to terms with the Kings on a three-year contract that will pay him $6 million per season. The Kings were one of the frontrunners for his services from the beginning and are as logical a fit as there was anywhere in the NHL.
Even though it has been years since they have gone on a deep run in the playoffs, the Kings are still a team that sees itself as a contender and, after a pitiful offensive showing in the playoffs (which followed another mediocre regular season), were in need of any potential impact talent it could find. Nearly a decade after the Kings initially attempted to acquire Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers, they finally ended up getting him.
Outside of John Tavares, there was not another forward available on the free agent market who could make a bigger impact.
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Now that he is in the mix for the Kings, we should probably take a look at what we should expect from him this upcoming season and beyond.
One thing that needs to be kept in mind when trying to figure out a reasonable expectation for Kovalchuk is just how good he was in the NHL before he left. This might be something that is easy to forget given how abruptly he left and how long he has been playing overseas. After arriving in Atlanta as the top pick in the 2001 draft, Kovalchuk almost immediately became the premier goal-scorer in the NHL with six consecutive 40-goal seasons between 2003-04 and 2009-10, including a pair of 50-goal outputs and a Rocket Richard Trophy.
Between the 2001-02 and 2009-10 seasons, no player in the league scored more goals than Kovalchuk’s 338.
He was not only a force offensively, but he gradually become a more complete player away from the puck without sacrificing much of the offense that made him a superstar.
During his time with the Devils, Kovalchuk had become a regular on their penalty kill unit and was extremely effective. He was perhaps at his best during the 2011-12 season when he played nearly 100 shorthanded minutes for the Devils, during which time his team outscored opposing power plays by a 5-4 margin. He had a hand in all five shorthanded goals (scoring three, assisting on two) the team scored.
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In his last two years with the Devils before leaving for Russia, Kovalchuk was a point-per-game player overall (sixth best in the entire league) and was arguably the best player on the 2011-12 team that reached the Stanley Cup Final, leading the Devils in scoring and finishing tied for the postseason league lead in goals.
Again, he was a dominant player across the board.
Since then, Kovalchuk has spent the past five years tearing up the KHL, especially over the past two seasons, when he was one of the top goal-scorers and point producers in the league. So what does that mean for a return to the NHL?
The biggest thing we have to look at with Kovalchuk is his age. He is 35 years old. For as dominant as he was in the KHL the past couple of years, he is not going to be the in-his-prime superstar when he returns to the NHL that he was before he left for Russia, so you shouldn’t be expecting a 40-goal, point-per-game player.
A few other things to keep in mind as it relates to age.
1. Over the past five years, no NHL player over the age of 35 has scored more than 30 goals in a season. Only eight (Martin St. Louis, Jarome Iginla, Marian Hossa, Daniel Sedin, Shane Doan, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Datsyuk, and Patrick Marleau) have scored more than 25.
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2. Only eight (Joe Thornton, St. Louis, Henrik Zetterberg, Jagr, Datsyuk, Iginla Sedin, and Hossa) have produced more than 60 total points in a single season over that same stretch, while only one (Thornton) had more than 70.
All of those players at their peak were superstars along the same lines of Kovalchuk, so that at least might give us some sort of a baseline for what to expect based on age.
But all of those players (with the exception of Jagr; more on him in a minute) were consistently playing in the NHL throughout their late 20s and early 30s. We saw them up close. We saw what they were doing and had an idea of what they were capable of coming into every season. With Kovalchuk, we haven’t actually seen him play on a regular basis (unless you are a regular observer of the KHL) since the 2012-13 season.
All we have to go by at this point to get a sense of what sort of player he can be is what he did in the KHL over the past five years.
Rob Vollman, a hockey analytics expert and the author of Hockey Abstract, has what he calls “translation factors” for players that played in leagues outside of the NHL. The translation factor tries to factor in what a player’s production would look like in the NHL. For players in the KHL, the translation is about 80 percent of the production.
Here are the translation factors in the format that you know and love.
Just multiply by the translation factor.
It’s based on data back to 2005-06, but it is tuned to 2017-18 league scoring levels. pic.twitter.com/RPeYrNjs9G
— Rob Vollman (@robvollmanNHL) April 11, 2018
This basically means a player that performed as Kovalchuk did in the KHL over the past two years (30 goals and 70 points over 60 games) might have their production translate to around 35 goals and 75 points over an 82-game season in the NHL.
That is not necessarily meant to be a projection for what happens next. It is just to get a general idea of what the production might look like when taking into account the quality of the league, the goal-scoring levels in the different leagues, and the number of games that are played.
Given where the Kings are coming from offensively, they should sign up for a 30-goal, 70-point season in a second. Heck, the only forwards that have topped even 50 points in Los Angeles over the past two seasons are Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown (which was probably a fluke this past season) and Jeff Carter.
But again, is that level of production a realistic goal?
We do have some parallels to look at here with high-level players who have spent a few years in the KHL and then returned to the NHL.
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Following the 2007-08 season, Jagr signed in Russia at the age of 35 for three seasons. While there, he was a consistent 20-goal, 50-point player for Omsk Avangard. He was basically a point-per-game player (.941 points per game to be exact) during his time in Russia. When he returned to the NHL in 2011-12 at the age of 39, he was a .780 point-per-game player over the next three seasons, or about 75 percent of what his production on a per-game basis in Russia was.
Then there is Alexander Radulov, whose saga with the Predators is now infamous. After two outstanding years to start his career in the NHL in 2006-07 and 2007-08, Radulov left for Russia where he spent the next eight years (minus a nine-game return to Nashville in 2011-12), where he was one of the most productive players in the league. During his KHL stint, Radulov averaged .432 goals per game and a ridiculous 1.25 points per game. In his first two years back in the NHL, he’s averaged .284 goals per game and .797 points per game. That is about 65 percent of his production from the KHL.
Sixty-five percent of Kovalchuk’s recent production in the KHL would translate to around 29 goals and 66 total points.
Again, that would be a huge upgrade for the Kings offensively, especially when you consider that there were only 25 players in the entire league that totaled at least 29 goals and 65 points this past season. And you know what? That seems like a pretty reasonable expectation for Kovalchuk this season when you take into account all of the factors at play, from his age, the player he was before he left for Russia, and the way he continued to perform in the KHL. The Kings are not going to get a Rocket Richard contender or a true superstar. They should still be getting a legitimate top-line forward who is going to make a significant impact in all situations.
In recent years, the Kings have have become stale all over the ice. They lacked impact talent after Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, and they just did not have the ability to score at a championship level. They still have some flaws throughout their roster when it comes to speed, and they still need to add more offense and perhaps change their identity a bit when it comes to succeeding in the modern NHL. But Kovalchuk is a good short-term band-aid that should give them a boost and maybe help them make a little more noise than they have in recent seasons.